AFTER 11 gruelling weeks, the day of reckoning has arrived for Scotland’s World Cup training squad, with 31 players finding out today [Monday] if they have made the cut and will be on the plane to Japan later this month, and eight returning to their clubs to try to refocus on their day jobs whilst secretly praying for that SOS call from the Land of the Rising Sun.
Head coach Gregor Townsend had initially planned to inform the players of their fate yesterday [Sunday] but pushed it back 24 hours, explaining that he and his coaching team still needed one last meeting to nail down the final few places after the team’s professional dismantling of Georgia in Tbilisi on Saturday evening.
Townsend is famous for making unexpected calls, but which way will he go with his biggest selection yet –
Props: The brief experiment of playing Berghan at loose-head at the start of the second-half of the first warm-up game in Nice pointed to how Townsend may look to free up an extra space elsewhere in the squad by only taking five props, with Bhatti the man likely to miss out after a torrid opening 40 minutes in the South of France. It is a shame that there wasn’t actually a completed scrum during that experiment.
In: Allan Dell, WP Nel, Gordon Reid, Zander Fagerson and Simon Berghan
Out: Jamie Bhatti
Hooker: Relatively straight forward. Stuart McInally goes – probably as captain. Fraser Brown’s return from a toe injury is on schedule and he has a fair bit of experience of jumping straight back in at the deep-end after lengthy spells on the side-line. The marginally more experienced George Turner holds off a strong challenge from Grant Stewart to take the third spot, although the cheap penalties are a concern, as are the wayward darts in the second warm-up game against France.
In: Stuart McInally, Fraser Brown and George Turner
Out: Grant Stewart
Second-row: This is where things start to get tricky. While maybe not as experienced and high-profile as the poster boys such as Stuart Hogg and Finn Russell, Sam Skinner was one of the most important members of the squad because of the versatility he offered in the back-five of the scrum, which would allow Townsend an extra place to play with elsewhere. His loss to a hamstring injury during the second France match was a massive blow with far-reaching consequences.
Blade Thomson can fill in as second-row in a crisis but you wouldn’t want to start him in a Test match, and taking just three is surely asking too much of the players given they will need to man the barricades in four pool games inside the space of 21 days (plus – hopefully – a few knock-out matches beyond that). Jonny Gray has been struggling with a hamstring tweak but could well play on Friday.
In: Grant Gilchrist, Jonny Gray, Ben Toolis and Scott Cummings
Back-row: Here’s the easy bit: Hamish Watson and John Barclay go. Then it gets complicated.
Jamie Ritchie’s consistency during the last year and his battling performance against France in Nice gets him on the plane. Blade Thomson offers something different, impressed on his debut and has apparently progressed well through his head-injury return-to-play protocol. Magnus Bradbury is yet to play this summer due to a rib injury but is not far away – he was in Georgia at the weekend warming up with the team – and offers bulk and the ability to plough through hard yards. Matt Fagerson can play across the back-row and couldn’t have done much more to stake a claim on Saturday. Does Townsend take all four, which leaves him with an 18-13 split between forwards and backs? More likely Fagerson is the desperately unlucky one to miss out.
Wilson is a Townsend favourite, and there is much to admire in his grittiness and leadership, but with Barclay now back that is not quite as valuable a commodity. Josh Strauss’s lack of consistency is his downfall.
In: Hamish Watson, John Barclay, Jamie Ritchie, Magnus Bradbury and Blade Thomson.
Out: Matt Fagerson, Josh Strauss and Ryan Wilson.
Scrum-halves: All three go with Laidlaw back at the top of the pile after a couple of typically composed performances in recent weeks, during which time he demonstrated that he is not as laboured as some would claim when working with clean, front-foot ball.
In: Greig Laidlaw, Ali Price and George Horne.
Stand-off: Russell is a stick-on. The big question is over whether Hastings goes as back-up or is sacrificed in favour of the versatile Pete Horne. Hastings had a torrid time in Nice but the real issue was that everything was on the back foot – and, although he was perhaps guilty of trying too hard to pull a rabbit out of a hat, it is doubtful that any 10 would have done much better.
In: Finn Russell and Adam Hastings
Centre: Johnson and Taylor were always going to travel if fit and nothing has changed there. Hutchinson is Townsend’s kind of player and hasn’t been fazed by the step-up to international rugby – he was a real handful off the bench in both France games and his two excellently taken tries against Georgia surely sealed the deal. Harris has really impressed the coaching team with his attitude and work-rate, and he showed against France at Murrayfield that he has added an attacking edge to his established defensive game.
It is crazy to think that Jones’ inclusion is even in question given his standing just 12 months ago, but he has really struggled to recapture the form of his first two years in the Scotland set-up, and it is hard to see how he fits into this squad. Form counts and he has been leap-frogged on that front by both Harris and Hutchinson.
Horne is apparently a steadying influence in the Scottish midfield, and he has been involved in some of the team’s biggest wins in recent years – but his distribution can be erratic and there are bigger and/or faster and/or more reliable options
In: Sam Johnson, Duncan Taylor, Rory Hutchinson and Chris Harris.
Out: Pete Horne and Huw Jones
Back-three: Fairly straight-forward. Kinghorn perhaps the most borderline but removing him and looking to Taylor, Harris and/or Hutchinson to fill in wold just leave the team bare elsewhere.
In: Stuart Hogg, Blair Kinghorn, Tommy Seymour, Sean Maitland and Darcy Graham
Out: Byron McGuigan
And – just for the hell of it – the team to play Ireland in their opening match on 22nd September: S Hogg: D Graham, D Taylor, S Johnson, S Maitland; F Russell, G Laidlaw; A Dell, S McInally, W Nel, G Gilchrist, J Gray, J Barclay, H Watson, B Thomson.
Subs: F Brown, G Reid, Z Fagerson, S Cummings, J Ritchie, A Price, A Hastings, T Seymour.